Immigrant Faith Communities On Rooting Out Anti-Black Racism
March 19, 2021
In the US, the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and the persistence of white supremacy touch every aspect of American life, including our religious and spiritual communities. With Kamala Harris’s candidacy, many started opening up public conversations about racism, and specifically anti-Black racism, within immigrant religious communities. Concurrently, anti-racist work is growing from and within immigrant faith communities. The following speakers joined in the conversation on these complex and timely themes:
Watch the full conversation here and read the transcript below:
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
A Year After George Floyd’s Murder: How Black Interfaith Can Give Hope to America
Janett I. Cordoves: “My church community is multicultural, inter-generational, active in the communities. But it wasn’t until George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter protests in the city of Chicago, when things shut down, that my religious community made a commitment to name racism, work towards dismantling it and took steps toward being anti-racist in pursued liberation.”
Alexis Vaughan Kassim: “It really stood out to me this past summer, on Juneteenth, when the youngest one, about 13, called and invited me to walk alongside them at a Black Lives Matter march that was just around the neighborhood. I was caught off guard. It’s not often that teenagers invite their pastor to participate in something like that. … He wanted me to come with him because he said, you know, every time you go to I.C.E., you show up for our folks, now we want to show up for you and have this march together.”
Raja Gopal Bhattar: “ In order for me to support Black Lives Matter, I don’t have to give up all of my identity or struggles or deny my struggles. It’s both and… And having a conversation about what does it mean for a certain — there is anti-Blackness and anti-Asian-ness, anti-brownness, anti-immigrant-ness in other communities as well. We have to have these conversations not just among ourselves, not only with white immigrants but with Black folks.”
Sung Yeon Choimorrow: “Asian Americans need to show up in solidarity and not as allies. We have to see this work of fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness as how it affects our lives as well. When we understand the narrative of how racism and white supremacy impact our lives, we are able to see the humanity of other people, as Khalid said: “I will never know what it’s like to be a Black man in this country.” But I know what it’s like to be a non-white person in this country. How do we share… lean into our activism with a spirit of generosity?”
Khalid Latif: “The most critical thing is to be strategic. It’s hard when things are heavy, and you start to feel the impact of all of this. But organized evil will always triumph over disorganized righteousness. That’s just truth, whether people will accept it or not. … To deal with it you have to break down the roots and to understand what the roots are you have to ask the people who have been impacted by it and learn and educate and then, once you have that knowledge, you go and teach other people what that actually is.”
Becca Hartman-Pickerill: I am now thrilled to introduce Dr. Janett I. Cordoves and Alexis Vaughan Kassim, the co-moderators of today’s conversation. You will see all of our speaker bios in the chat box shortly. Janett is director of higher education partnerships at IFYC. She holds an ED in ethical leadership, an MS in higher education and a BA in applied mathematics. Her research interests include first-generation college students, #DigitalFaith, leadership development and online pedagogy. Janett is part of Chicago’s 2021 civic leadership academy. Reverend Alexis Vaughan Kassim is the pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia. She attended Duke university as an undergraduate and received her Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Alexis serves on the steering committee of the Congregation Action Network, a grassroots organization in D.C. dedicated to advocating for undocumented communities. Over the last year, their work focused on anti-racism education within their base to advocate for better public policy. I am thrilled now to hand the virtual microphone over to you, Janett and Alexis.
Janett I. Cordovés: Thank you, Becca. So excited to be here. Welcome to everyone to our public conversation on immigrant faith communities as anti-racist allies. I have to start the conversation with acknowledging that this conversation in and of itself is no easy task. In the U.S. in particular, our context, the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and the persistence of white supremacy touch every aspect of American life including our religious and spiritual communities. With Kamala Harris’ candidacy, many started opening up these private conversations into the public forum about racism and specifically anti-Black racism. Concurrently, anti-racist work is growing from and within immigrant faith communities. Today a few of us are opening up about it.
As someone, personally, who sees themselves straddling multiple roles as a native Spanish speaker, the first of my family to be born in the United States, with a dominant Cuban and native cultural lens, with a terminal degree in my field, growing up in fluid and changing socioeconomic realities, changing churches and places of worship, I have been code-switching for quite some time. The conversations I have with close friends about white supremacy rearing its ugly head in academia and workplaces and places of worship sound and feel really different from my conversations with my pastor and my religious community. At least they did. Some of that is changing. For instance, conversations with friends about navigating and combating white supremacy, misogyny and various-isms, yet within my religious community it’s more, or was more, about making the case, calling people in, educating about the stages of socialization, systemic racism, and taking personal responsibility for one’s introspection and personal work. My church community is multicultural, inter-generational, active in the communities. But it wasn’t until George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter protests in the city of Chicago, when things shut down, that my religious community made a commitment to name racism, work towards dismantling it and took steps toward being anti-racist in pursued liberation.
For today’s conversation, there will be no code switching. This is our sacred collective space and we will be vulnerable. I will be vulnerable. There are risks. Risks which include further stigmatization of communities already targeted and misunderstood. A story or an example being taken out of context and weaponized to perpetuate divisiveness and hateful rhetoric. Us, us panelists, us friends, us scholars, us experts, us religious leaders, being perceived as traitors within our religious or spiritual communities. On our part, there are risks. We are taking them. On your part, you need to do a few things as well. Soften your heart, remain engaged and learn with us. Welcome into our public conversation.
Today we embark on this conversation with Reverend Alexis Vaughan Kassim, Dr. Raja Bhattar, Reverend Sung Yeon Choimorrow and Imam Khalid Latif. Full bios will populate in the chat box. You can get to know them there and throughout our conversation. Their bios are just too long to cover. They’re doing such fabulous work. And you must know, we are all choosing to be brave and vulnerable as we welcome you here and invite to you listen in on a conversation that usually occurs behind closed doors within affinity groups, in our bonded capital. Reverend Alexis, Dr. Raja, Reverend Sung Yeon and Imam Khalid, welcome and thank you for being vulnerable with me and all of those listening in today. I am grateful for you and for the conversation that is about to unfold. Let us learn from one another and help each other prepare and strengthen ourselves individually, so that we can collectively work to transform our society and world. Today’s conversation is about anti-racist and anti-Black work occurring within our immigrant religious communities and the work that many of us are leading. To get to what we are doing today, I believe we need to take some time to look back. Like the Sankofa, African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana, depicted as a mythical bird that flies forward, while looking back with an egg, symbolizing the future in its mouth. To mean that we must recognize, no, reflect upon our past as it helps guide our steps to a future, a more productive future. And I believe this to be true. So, to guide our time, this conversation, we will reflect on the past, move to the present, and envision the future.
Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim: Thank you, Janett. And welcome again to all of our participants and everyone joining us virtually. I would like to start our conversation by just getting to know our panelists a little bit better. I would like to invite each of us to share a bit about ourselves and our own unique world view through which we enter this conversation. I’d like us to think about how we have been socialized within our own immigrant and religious communities to make sense of the world and the cultural dynamics around that, so… I’ll begin.
Again, my name is Alexis Vaughan Kassim. I was born and raised in the D.C. area of the United States. I identify as a Black woman. And I identify as a pastor. I am a pastor of a Protestant Christian congregation that is predominantly white. The code switching that Janett mentioned earlier has always been a part of my career and my life. As part of my pastorate, I’m involved with an organization called the Congregation Action Network, which stands in solidarity with undocumented communities. We were sort of born out of the Muslim ban and executive orders that led to a lot of increased criminalization of immigrant communities in our area. As part of that work, I work primarily with Latinx folks, not exclusively but primarily. In my own life, all of this work around immigration became very real to me when I married my spouse. My spouse is originally from Kenya. When he came to the United States to live, we had very interesting conversations about identity and Blackness and what that means from an immigrant context. So, I’ll share more about that as our conversation evolves. But for now, let me pass the virtual mic over to Raja. And if you could comment a little bit about your world view and how you enter into this conversation.
Raja Gopal Bhattar: Wonderful, thank you, Reverend Kassim. Greetings to everyone, namaskaram, my name is Raja Bhattar. I use they/them pronouns. And I am currently in Tongva land in Los Angeles. I am the, I am an immigrant. I moved to the U.S. when I was seven. I was adopted. I come from a deeply Hindu tradition and Dharmic tradition. My great uncle was the first to come to the U.S. post-1965 to initiate Hindu temples in Pittsburgh and Flushing. And so, really, that has led to many of my family members, extended wise, to be at most temples across the U.S. and so really feeling connected to the ritualistic understanding of Hinduism in the world, in the U.S. and at the same time also feeling, as a 1.5-gen kid, and being lost in understanding some of the traditions and rituals, and not being able understanding why we do things, has really led to my own understanding of my own spirituality. And coming out a genderqueer and queer person of color didn’t make anything easier, it just added to the complexity. And I think that’s actually, I was on a panel yesterday and I said, I don’t think I would have understood the power of my faith had it not been for my coming-out experience and I don’t think I would have understood the strength of my faith, strength of my identity had it not been for my faith. I do feel like often I don’t put the comma between spiritually and sexuality. Because I think those are interlaced together.
But at the same time, what does it mean… I grew up in suburban Connecticut? So really interesting to think about growing up with a lot of Puerto Rican and Black folks in my community, where I felt more connected to them than I did to other South Asian folks who were often professional identities. So, they often came from doctors and engineers, whereas I was a working-class kid. So, really, my racial formation was really fascinating to where… I was even the president of our Alianza Latina group in high school. And now thinking about, what does that mean for me to have held that space and find community in spaces where it may not—there is not a racial identity, but there’s a cultural affinity to that process. Since then, I think I’ve done a lot of work in really thinking about colonization and what that means to decolonize our South Asian racial identities, and the model minority, thanks to Sung Yeon background as well, and what does it mean for us to show in these spaces, and for me as a darker-skinned person, to address racism and colorism in my own family. And then, finally, also thinking about the ways, you know, I’m lucky enough to be a part of a couple of different working groups, thinking about how do we have these conversations within spiritual communities? And what does it mean to actually go into temples, go into other very spiritual spaces and actually foster that conversation in a way that is able to be comfortable enough that we’re able to have the conversation, but uncomfortable enough to actually start to shift the process because I think that’s, we can’t go in and say here is all the things that you’re doing wrong. So, I’m really, I’m thinking a lot about, how do we have these conversations in ways that are actually meaningful and progressive, to lead us to where we want to go as a community? So, thank you for the opportunity to be here.
Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim: Thank you. Sung Yeon, why don’t you go next?
Sung Yeon Choimorrow: Sure, thank you so much for the space. It’s such a pleasure to speak with folks who are coming from so many different walks of life, wearing different hats and identities. Very similarly, when someone asks me where are you from, I’m like, how much time do you have? Because my background is, it’s not that straightforward. I came to the United States as an adult. But then people are like, “but you have an American accent.” Yes, I know. But I was born in South Korea, but I grew up in India my whole life going to a boarding school and came to the United States having gone to this boarding school. Then I went to an evangelical college, I went to Wheaton college, which was like in itself a very intense experience, coming from my worldview and my Christianity looking very different than what mainstream evangelical Christianity looks like in this country. And so, there was a lot of shocking moments I had, just overt and subtle racism that I experienced. Of course, being of East Asian heritage, we have our own issues and dealings with colorism in our community. But I also experienced that living in India, being a lighter-destined person living in India.
So, like, the way I see the world in terms of race and religion and even gender and sexual orientation and all of that, come from so many different ways that I have experienced life with different kinds of people. And I think for the purposes of this conversation today, for me, it’s really unpacking, what do we mean by immigrant community? Because that’s also very diverse. What do we mean by antiracism? What do we mean by anti-Blackness? There’s so many, like, depending on who you are and who you are talking to, those things can really vary and be nuanced. I’m looking forward to a rich, nuanced conversation. Because I feel like often it’s really approached generally as a Black/white paradigm in this country and I think it is high time that we move away from it being so simplistic. That, we as other communities of color, as immigrant communities also need to understand where we fit into that narrative around racism and oppression and our participation in and experience in, right? Like, I mean it’s, I can’t talk about racism without acknowledging right now that East Asians are experiencing horrendous public harassment, to the point that people are being murdered on the streets, right? How does that play into how do we talk about racism, and even instill anti-Blackness? Those are the things that I’m carrying with me.
I also am part of a pretty white denomination. I’m ordained in the Presbyterian church. In our Presbyterian Chicago, there is very few of us who are ordained clergy of color. Navigating, again, this pretty white, in my opinion, fairly white supremacist-oriented denomination that professes the faith that I share, that I grew up with. How do I navigate and extend grace and challenge all of us in our faith community in the Protestant, main line, particularly, in the Presbyterian tradition? How do I continue to walk alongside and challenge our community to do better and be better? And then, to add another layer to that, now I am a mom of a Black and Korean girl. The things that she experiences in life are things that I never imagined my child would, but she is because she is Black. And so, those are things that really go all into the ways that I think about life and racism and how we build a faith community that—where everyone can flourish.
Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim: Thank you for that. Imam Khalid, would you share a few words about yourself?
Imam Khalid Latif: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Khalid Latif. I am the university chaplain at New York University and I also serve as the executive director of NYU’s Islamic Center. I think in my own socialization, being the child of immigrants, I was born in New Jersey. Immigrants who come from a Kashmiri background. Kashmir being an occupied land between India and Pakistan and then having parents who experienced the realities of partition. Where my family, my father’s side was in India and had to relocate to Pakistan. And then live within the cross-generational experiences of colonialization and a mindset that creates this idea that within your own culture you get the sense that you don’t really belong in your own land. Coming to America within a time where our country was looking to inflate its rankings in fields like medicine and science and engineering and now brought in people from all over the world, inclusive of my father who’s a cardiologist by his training and has lived in the United States since the ’70s. I grew up as the youngest of three children in New Jersey. Most of my friends were not of my faith community. But I had friends that came mostly from a Filipino background that were Christian, African Americans that were Christian, friends that shared South Asian identity with me but were mostly Hindu. Many people who were also Jewish. It wasn’t until I got into my college years that I started to interact more with people of my faith.
The imposition I think of narrative upon me as a Muslim is something that both from an immigration standpoint, but also an otherization standpoint, that whether I was an immigrant or not, the racialization of my faith has me to be understood as being from someplace else. As a product of supremacy, I have to always be compared to what is claimed as a primordial state of existence within whiteness. There’s always an explanation for why I do what I do. That where I come from is always not from where I actually am. Going into it, the constructed narratives of fear that leverage things like a 9/11 experience, that, to me, lay the basis for policies rooted in what culminates in a war on terror has its roots in, really what anti-Blackness is built upon. The process that goes from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration is a very similar process to takes us from politicians and media crafting narrative that has us create both international and domestic policy that influences Muslim experience in a lot of different ways. I say this to you as somebody who has met with President Obama when he was in office and his senior staff. I have done work with the state department. Shared stages with people like the Pope and the Dalai Lama. I’ve still had the FBI visit me in my house. And when they’ve come, after a few times I’ve said, “What do you really want from me?” And they’ve said, “You are just too good to be true. Know that we’re watching you.” That the reality of being suspect before being understood is anything else, is something that I could tell you in very deep detail, having been detained, profiled and surveilled, I still couldn’t tell you what it is like to be a Black person living in this country. The realities that I face in terms of anti-Muslim sentiment and what’s very pervasive to me is symptomatic of a deeply entrenched anti-Blackness that’s rooted in the country. The impact that it yields, though, I think, from the standpoint of being a child of colonialization, is that you don’t know necessarily where you belong. But the internalized racisms and the core beliefs that it now creates within you is that you want your aspirations to be towards whiteness. And at the very least you want to ensure that it’s not ever going in the direction of Blackness. So, that model minority situation does not necessarily render consciousness, because you feed into these tropes that say if you just work harder, then you might get it. But you’re not recognizing where the ceilings are placed on others and where, through tokenization, the ceiling has been lifted for you a little bit, but not to the extent that it still gives you full access in the ways that those that come from privileged demographics are able to access. And to alert yourself to what real consciousness is necessitates saying, well, what are the ropes that are holding me back in the first place and how am I part of the process that is creating what it is that is happening to minorities, in specific, those who self-identify as Black, as being Black, for me to have even access to the privileges that have been given to me in these ways.
In the work that I do, I serve a community at New York University that has about 3,000 Muslim students at it. But our Islamic Center also opens its events and programs to people who live and work in the surrounding area. So, we estimate we serve about 10,000 people. And that number grows every year. Within it, there is no shortage of experiences of people who are undocumented, to people who are working in investment banking that will come and say, federal law enforcement came to see me today. This is what’s happening to my family members. I have my father who has been deported years ago that we still haven’t been able to connect. Or people who in the immigration ban are still not given entrance into the country even though they got a Visa on a lottery system. So, the creation of these policies are impacting day-to-day, that then leverage that internalized racism that says, well, if we just acquiesce to this good/bad framework maybe we’ll get ahead in just a little bit of it. And I think serving a diverse community at a university has also enabled the opportunity to recognize that there is a need to not just sugar-coat the conversations, but to acknowledge and own what role we blame in the furthering of this anti-Blackness so we that can break it down systemically. But throughout my elementary school, middle school, high school experiences, I could tell you that it felt like I was just straddling multiple spaces because I didn’t really know where someone like myself fit in in the midst of being surrounded also, in retrospect, by so many people that weren’t even given a place to belong to themselves. It just renders a lot of confusion.
Janett I. Cordovés: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. My goodness, so many nuggets. I have so many notes already. I think I’m just learning so much, really resonating with like, just my own socialization, my own church, my own places of worship, how we collude and participate in this system at some points unconsciously, then consciously, and the realization of proximity to whiteness being what we end up striving towards or being pulled towards. And within the structures and the institutions that exist, that continue to perpetuate, and then internally what happens, our increased internalized superiority and then our need to be possibly on the border and maybe to continue to collude and become oppressors, and how do we do that? It’s just so hard to do this work for long periods of time consciously making a difference when there is so much at risk, there’s so much at stake, so it’s so important and we are called to do it. And yet, it seems, from all of our comments that it’s quite difficult, right?
So, going back to Sung Yeon, to your point about, how do we define it? What does this look like? I think it’s really important. So, what does anti-racist work look like in our communities? What does anti-Black work look like within our communities? We have lifted up some of the barriers, but how, how are we moving past the barriers? How are we breaking those barriers down within our communities? I think back to this summer at my church in Chicago. It was the first time I could have my church participate in Juneteenth and march with various interfaith leaders in the city, and a realization that that was important. But it had been years of naming how important it is to show up as an ally, how important it is, even if we disagree, to be hand in hand. These are our brothers and sisters. There is a large… fifty percent of our population is grieving. How could we not be with them? How could we not hold their hand, how can we not walk with them? And so, wondering in your communities, what are the barriers and what does it look like? Raja, can you go?
Raja Gopal Bhattar: Yeah, I want to also name another piece that Sung Yeon brought up earlier as well. Who do we define as immigrants, right? So, I identify as a person of color and queer South Asian desi. And from what I can tell, most of us represent the global majority. And, so where are the white immigrants? What does it mean that immigrants often become colorized and painted as these “others” to Reverend—sorry—Imam Khalid’s point, right? Who gets to, who is required to have these conversations? And who is expected to have these conversations? And who is forgiven from these conversations? So, I think that’s something I’m also just sitting with, so I really appreciate Sung Yeon’s, Reverend Sung Yeon’s kind of naming of that.
I do think, so I think to your point… I think a lot about. For me, I’m a 9/11 kid as well. I was a first-year student in college when 9/11 happened, in Boston. And recognizing that it required me to do, really do a lot of self-reflection, reflection. Because I remember, there was a little bit of fear about what would happen to me. At the same time, I was also really quick when someone would say, “Are you Muslim?” Like, “No, no I’m not.” And I had to really be like, wow. There was a, there was not even like a split second of process that I had internalized that Islamophobia. That my family came from partition, but I never really grew up in it, so it was never part of my consciousness, but it had seemed, it had been internalized, right? Kind of that, that superiority of Hinduism within this Hindu, Pakistan, and Kashmir and all the mess that the west has done, and we have created ourselves. But then what does it mean to come to the U.S. and even here I remember… even in college, you know, the Pakistani students wouldn’t talk to the Indian students; the Indian students wouldn’t talk to the Muslim students; the Muslim students wouldn’t talk to the Hindu students; they wouldn’t talk to the Buddhist students, we so trying to find our own space in this larger Black/white framework, like Sung Yeon talked about, that weirdly I think it’s often easier to fight for our, kind of like, our piece of the pie. The pie is already screwed over anyway, and we get all the rotted pie that has already been taken.
And so, I do think for me thinking about anti-Blackness requires us to both, for me at least, both recognizing that, yes, I can blame the British for most things that are a problem in India, including colorism and the ways that colonization has, and the ways the religion in India, at least, has been so connected to the state because of the way that the government actually usurped Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries and mosques and the ways they actually manipulated that to control the country. How that is related, reflected in our own religious kind of isms in the diaspora in the US, but also, we have to take responsibility for how, particularly post-9/11, there’s, I think it has intensified Hindutva, particularly orthodox conservative Hinduism to prove that they are not the bad ones. What does it mean for us to be able to sit with that? And for me, having, being in temples, how do I challenge that? That’s been really hard for me and trying to figure out how to do that in a way that feels like I’m not going to just get kicked out of the conversation. So, how do I push enough to have reflection, but how do I, how can I not afford to push so hard that I get thrown out because then we often get thrown out so quickly in other conversations around race in the U.S. that, then where do I go? I don’t want to simply talk to my echo chambers. That’s kind of some of the questions I continue to sit with.
Janett I. Cordovés: Sung Yeon, Khalid, any thoughts?
Sung Yeon Choimorrow: I would like to jump in. I think that as an immigrant, person of color, you know, that comes from a Christian tradition, it’s also really important to understand my agency in choosing the faith community that I choose. You can’t automatically assume that I only identify as an immigrant Christian, right? As Christians, our identity, you know, I mean and for other religions, too, but more so as Christians of color, it’s a choice more than a culture heritage, right? So, I think I need to name that nuance there. Because the way I do my work within the Asian American community around anti-Blackness and how do we understand racial narrative, it’s very different than the work that I participated in a faith community I participate in which is predominantly white. My role in my faith community, which is predominantly white is very different than if I were in a Korean immigrant church, which I am not right now.
I think some of the just top lines I want to point out to is, you know, I feel like my sign is so relevant to our conversation. It’s not your model minority idea in that, you know, so many of us come here or are born to immigrants or migrants or refugees with this internalized racism and living into this white supremacy narrative that proximity to whiteness is what we are striving for. When we talk about the American dream, that’s what we are talking about, we’re talking about… and oftentimes how many of us grow up or know people who grew up with parents telling them: put your head down, just do your work, work hard, get good grades, go to a great college, get a great job, go make it, don’t ruffle feathers, don’t be bothered by all of these things, right? I mean I think we need to understand the context that we have been presented in which, where other communities of color are pitted against each other. And in fact, the term “model minority” was coined by white people to use East Asians specifically as a wedge race between them and Black people. There was literally an article in The Times in the ’60s that talked about why Japanese Americans are the model race versus Black people. It was horrendous. If you Google that, Wikipedia it, it’s horrendous the things that they were saying. But that is the same mentality that pervades in this world today. And so, as an East Asian, I know, I know that I don’t do, that my presentation in my features is not a threat to people. And in fact, that is a reason why we are being attacked so much, right? Right now, with the coronavirus and anti-Asian sentiment around it, we are seen as docile, quiet, submissive people that will just take it, right? Many of us just play into that stereotype to get ahead. I have often been told: “Why don’t you not say what you really think because that’s not going to help you in life?” So many people give me advice that I am too opinionated and I’m too loud for an Asian woman, right? That that’s not going to not serve me in this society, right? And so, part of fighting the narrative isn’t just about teaching white people white supremacy is bad and how they participate in it. But it’s to help our community understand the root narrative of how we come into this picture in the first place.
And so, in fact I, when George Floyd’s murder happened, and there was this huge uprising because one of the police officers that were involved was a Hmong, was an Asian-American person. There was a lot of conversation in our community about, like, whose side are you on? I mean it was just horrible—and the riots that ensued after that, 70% of Korean immigrant businesses in the city of Chicago—70% of the Korean-owned businesses in predominantly Black communities were completely vandalized, right? So, the narrative for us, is pretty complicated and nuanced. I felt like the approach was very much, what about us? We were hurt too. All the Asians come around and say, “my dad doesn’t have a business anymore. You don’t want me to care about my dad’s business. You want me to go out for the Black people. Well, my people matter, too.” Then there were people come out of privilege who are pretty much acting white saying, “we have more privilege than Black people, so we always have to stand for Black people. We always have to be in allyship with Black people.” And so actually, it was in that conversation, I had written an op-ed about how Asian Americans need to show up in solidarity and not as allies. We have to see this work of fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness as how it affects our lives as well. When we understand the narrative of how racism and white supremacy impacts our lives, then we are able to see the humanity of other people, as Khalid said, “I’m never going to know what it’s like to be a Black man in this country.” But I know what it’s like to be a non-white person in this country. How do we share, lean into our activism with a spirit of generosity? This is to me the biggest challenge for us in the Asian-American community because we have always been told, especially in the East Asian community, or you know the professional class, the “professional class,” right? The lawyers, the engineers, the doctors, that we are exceptional. It is so hard for us to rid ourselves of that higher ceiling that white people have put on us to say this isn’t enough. And in fact, we are going to fight with everyone else so there is no more ceiling. That’s the work that we have to do in terms of—in our particular context around anti-Blackness.
I think it gets complicated, especially in the Christian—Asian Christian communities because you overlay sort of our political experience with, for the majority of us, our theology is very colonialized theology, right? Like Korea, you know, white missionaries brought Christianity to Korea. Most Indian Christians I know. Very few come out of the Thomas, Saint Thomas, very indigenous Christian culture. Most of them have is also been because of, as Raja said, yes, I think it’s fair to blame 99% of your problems on the British. Many, many people of color, our Christian identity or our theology has been shaped by white people. And so, a bulk of the work I did in seminary was really unlearning the things that people make assumptions about. Here I am spending three years of my life being educated to lead people in faith and what am I reading 90% of the time? Dead white men material. It had no relevance to me. Frankly, and then you bring in the feminist perspective, and it’s like, OK, that doesn’t have the racial perspective, right? And so, I feel like in the Christian, especially in the Christian space, we have a lot of unlearning to do. A lot of decolonializing of our faith to do. When you get to our original texts, when you read our original texts and even then you have to read at the in the historical or cultural context, that there can be so much that can be misconstrued and used for our benefit, which has been, like, the trademark of the Christian faith for over 2,000 years, right? We use it to keep people down. We use it to keep people done, we use—I mean, it became the religion of the empire. I think that is something, as people of color this double unlearning is hard to do, especially when you are, like, here just trying to survive working 15-hour days at a dry cleaner. When you go to church on Sunday, you don’t want to sit there and learn about decolonization, you just want to hear a good word, encouragement of how you’re living your best life and God loves the way you are and then do another 15 hours a day week and come back. Those are the barriers that we experience particularly in the immigrant Christian space, but broadly, I think, the Christian faith in general, especially in the United States, has a lot of work to do.
Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim: I want to soft of shift our conversation to touch on a theme that a lot of you—all of you, actually—have mentioned thus far, which is responsibility. We have a number of people on this call who are, who would sort of fall under the umbrella of what we consider an ally, right? Educators, faith practitioners, people who serve the community who stand with immigrant folks in a lot of capacities. And I am wondering how you all would describe sort of the responsibility that allies have to teaching immigrants about the racial dynamics of the United States and of the country that they are entering. I’m reminded just from my own experience, when my husband moved to the United States from Kenya, he identified very strongly, and still does, as a Kenyan. Understanding full well that the way he is Black and the way that I identify a Black are two different things. We are not exactly talking about the same thing here. We had a lot of challenging conversations just about how it is great to self-identify. We all want to encourage that. But when you are in the United States, no one is necessarily going to ask you how you self-identify. They are going to see you as a Black man. Not only as a Black man, but a very tall, dark-skinned Black man and, if they are listening to you, with an accent. You are noticeable, in our very visual culture, you don’t come over as an American in the way that a lot of people would understand that. That was really challenging for us. But I felt that I really needed to push it, for his safety. But, also, just because knowing that he is in a new space and you didn’t learn what it means to be Black in America, you didn’t learn about anti-Blackness in the same way as you’re having to live it out in the United States. I felt just a very strong responsibility to do that teaching. But I notice now in my work just with community organizations that sort of stand with undocumented communities, none of that was part of the work, really, before the George Floyd murder. I think now a lot of immigrant ally related organizations are being more mindful to that. But what would you say from your experience? What is the responsibility of allies to do some of that unlearning and then also from the perspective of immigrants themselves? What is their responsibility to learn the cultural and social dynamics of this place? Why don’t, Khalid, we’ll start with you.
Imam Khalid Latif: Sure. Well, you know, I would say the motivation for an immigrant coming here becomes one of the key variables to understand, right? Like, I’ve been to Myanmar where Rohingya communities are facing genocide and ethnic cleansing. And there’s fourteen hundred Rohingya in Chicago. What’s bringing them here is very different from what it might bring somebody else here. Many people come westward if we were to make a generalization, not to seek enlightenment. When people want enlightenment and understanding of the self, they go east, they don’t come west. When people are coming west it’s mostly for things that are rooted in what our consumer-driven society claims to offer them. The American dream in of itself is coined as a dream that’s about materialistic success. It’s not about the real understanding of the self and consciousness and awareness, or what has to take place in order to have that success and for you to have more, what it means for someone else to have less. Aspirationally, people are fleeing circumstances that are very hard. And they come here in pursuit of something that can either allow for themselves to have more of a financial kind of foundation that’s strong, or to send money back home in places where there is not enough funds for the families that they are leaving behind. And so, their intention and purpose is rooted in what supremacy creates in the form of this individualistic type of mindset, that says, “My wants come at the expense of others needs and even my own needs.” Racism in our country, I think, has to be understood in relation to classism. The way race and class both go hand in hand becomes very critical in understanding why dynamics exist in the ways that they would exist. I would say that it becomes incumbent upon individuals who have leadership positions to recognize the role they play in educating everybody, inclusive of immigrants, what the country is actually founded upon so that we play our role as individuals to have our responsibility formulate as a collective to break down anti-Blackness.
I would say this, not in any other way other than to say that I do think there a difference in what is experienced by my community, speaking on behalf of Muslims, and how that is a continuity of anti-Blackness. The frame has to be one that recognize that the crux of it all is the mistreatment of Black people. If we are to learn how to deal with and dismantle the structures and systems that bleed anti-Blackness—that’s what they are built to do—we’ll then have the mechanism to see deal with the rest of this. But what you are dealing with when people come here is a situation that they are still understanding what American life is like through Hollywood and popular media and everything else. And globalized now supremacy gives people an opportunity to recognize like ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, what is happening in India right now under the guise of supremacy, what we find happening here within the framework of supremacy. There are literal internment camps in China right now as we are talking. We have so many examples where people from elsewhere have the impact of globalized supremacy in their day-to-day living that it wouldn’t be a hard thing for people to understand. The hard thing for them to understand is going to be how they relate to Blackness itself. And what it is that they perceive Blackness to be. And even in the framework. You go into New York City where there is huge demographics of populations speaking through what friends of mine and others have shared, both as immigrants from Africa, children of African immigrants and people who identify as African American. There is like distinction now that comes between the way people who are African might perceive people who are African American. And still, have a certain disdain that comes from the internalized modes. And what you are deconstructing is a recognition that the thoughts that you think are your own thoughts are in reality the thoughts that supremacy wants you to think. It wants you to believe you are thinking your own thoughts when in reality the thoughts that you are think are the thoughts that they want to think of the other, to the extent that you can share Black skin and still seek to separate yourself from somebody else who has the same skin color as you because of those internalized modes of racism. And it’s a lot, much worse than most of us actually perceive it to be. I think the realities that we find ourselves in, with openings, right? There are immigrant women who are from India, from Arab countries, Malaysia, Turkey, anywhere you can find Islam, that lived in the United States that, when George Floyd was killed, were in a space where across the board—like I’m talking about tons of like elderly immigrant women—their children were coming and saying, it was the first time my parents really understood what it’s like to be Black in this country. They are seeing it. They are experiencing it. You can see them wrestle with what is happening.
That’s where I would say it becomes incumbent upon us to now take that as an opening to perform allyship and recognize that it is not on the demographic that is seeking to be understood to explain themselves over and over. We have to do our parts in the education and articulation through their leadership. I have to be willing, regardless of whether I can serve thousands of people, or whatever else, to say that in this frame, I have to go and take what is being strategically understood from Black leadership, as my point of a moral compass. Not what I feel like in my own savior-esque entitle mode of somebody who is now also had assimilation from America that believes that I might know that is better. But I go and I take from it. I took students of mine and others to Standing Rock, when people were there to protest the pipelines that were being built. One of the things that happened at Standing Rock was that, in the morning, the chieftains of the tribes would gather volunteers around a fire. It was cold. It was snowing, freezing outside. We are living on this land. They would gather people in this big circle, and they would say to them, “just remember, we appreciate that you are here to support us. But when you leave, we will still have to be here. So, your actions, they will set precedent for people’s perception of us, not of you.” Meaning, like, take your cues from us, don’t do just what you feel like doing. That education is important, but it has to still be disseminated in a way that honors and recognizes how we can perpetuate the cycle of anti-Blackness by leaving Black voices out from educating people about Black experiences. But to take from leadership and to say what direction should we go in?
The last point that I’ll say here is that the most critical thing is to be strategic. It’s hard when things are heavy, and you start to feel now the impact of all of this. But organized evil will always triumph over disorganized righteousness. That’s just truth, whether people want to accept it or not. There’s a vantage point to keeping minority demographics separate from each other or to have them perceive about the other, through that hierarchical stratification, that lets an immigrant believe, if they are not coming from this background, well, I may not be white, but at least I’m not Black. Allow for me to then think I’m still kind of good where I’m at, or I know how to move forward. It’s going to then continue to perpetuate itself because it’s foundation anti-Blackness. It’s manifested in the way we’ve seen different minority groups treated throughout the country’s inception. But to deal with it you got to break down its roots and to understand what its roots are, you got to ask the people who have been impacted by it and learn and educate and then, once you have that knowledge, you go and you teach other people what that actually is.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow: I would like to jump in here for a minute and also say that I think just recognizing that being a member of clergy or educator is also in some—maybe not income-wise—it’s still an elite group, right? What I often find most challenging is that we have these, you know, like I feel like we process a lot, we think a lot, we read a lot, this is part of our job. But this is also part of our privilege. We are able to form these narratives and stories and logic that just like it doesn’t make sense for, like, you know, the sixty-year-old Korean immigrant man who barely speaks English, is like just trying to get by like running his restaurant that’s now complete, you know, in shambles because of the pandemic, right? So, I feel like there is own us on us as educators, as religious leaders, where we need to really, like Khalid said, wait for the opportunity and engage. We have to meet people where they are at, right?
I’m also really sitting with Raja’s point of who do we define as immigrants and who is part of this conversation as immigrants being anti-racist allies, right? I am very struck by the fact that I live in a community that I joke, it’s very diverse, it’s so immigrant that even the white kids are immigrants. We have a large population of eastern European immigrants, but they have the total privilege of never being othered. Just taken for granted that they are part of America. Because they are white, especially the kids born here, they are all given waspy names and all of a sudden Colin is as American as apple pie. Never minds your parents came from Romania and they speak to you Romanian at home and your experience is different. Really what I see happening in our communities, is that it’s those communities in some ways that are really pushing for the white supremacy and nationalist ideology in schools, they were the ones who don’t want the Black Lives Matter signs up at the high school. There’s a huge debate in our local high school because we had a Black Lives Matter sign up and predominantly eastern European immigrant parents organized this comity and got the school to take the sign down, saying it makes their children unseen and not important, right? So, again, I think it is important for us in our context to have this conversation and what it means for us. But we are leaving out a whole group of people. And then there is like I have conversations with my Latinx peers and colleagues in the work, and those who can pass, want to pass, and don’t want to have anything to do with anything with immigration, right? So, I think the conversation needs to be nuanced and really thought about in terms of like who are we asking to educate who, also, right? Yes, there is a role that we have to play in our context, but I do think that I want to bring that, circle back to that conversation about when we talk about immigrants, let’s not just think about those of us who look brown, right? Let’s really think about what we mean by immigrant religious communities because, you know, there is a wide range out there. They are the ones that I actually think are—our community folks, like not having them understand anti-Blackness is a problem, but I think it’s the white immigrants who pick up the white supremacy mentality and push for that that is much more dangerous, right? Because they are then perpetuating and living into the white supremacist and nationalist mentalities that we are working so hard to fight.
Raja Gopal Bhattar: I’ll just add a couple of points to both of what you have said, I mean the other piece for me, I think my responsibility is both self-education and an awareness process, but then also a community education of our history. I think history is so important. So much of the history in the ways that our communities learn about race in the U.S. is through media. I remember I started shaving my head probably 15 years ago. And the first time I went to India, they’re like, “Obama, Obama.” And I was like, “What the hell is going on here?” Even my family members still joke like that. And so, there is this really interesting racialization that happens with skin color. In the U.S., even just to think about what was it like for, in the early 1900s for Bhagat Singh Thind to argue with the Supreme Court to argue that he was white to gain citizenship because of the anti-Asian immigration laws that existed? And then what does it mean that even, even in the 1960s, when immigration laws were passed that only professional identities of East Asian folks and South Asian folks were allowed to enter and were given Visas which then has cultivated this idea of this model minority through natural, through really intentional selection by white upper-middle-class politicians that kind of created this culture. To y’all’s point, to actually reaffirm the model minority, but also the preferential identity of lightness and knowledge, which then also recreates this notion that Black folks are not educated and not smart, etc. And so, what does that mean to them and ignore the entire history of colonialization and slavery and enslavement on what has created this current moment in the world.
The other piece for me is thinking about in post-9/11, how many Hindu communities specifically have just forgotten about Islamophobia and anti-Blackness in our communities? It’s almost the—we have enough to fight for ourselves, we don’t have time for other people. And yet, the fact that our own ability to survive and thrive in this country is based on the backs of other people. So Sung Yeon’s point earlier about the solidarity piece, it is not an all or nothing. It does not have to be, in order for me to support Black Lives Matter, that I don’t have to give up all of my identity or struggles or deny my struggles. It’s the “both-and” and I think it also requires us to have a conversation about what does it mean for us to sit with the messiness that like there is a lot of anti-Blackness and anti-Asian-ness and anti-brownness, anti-immigrant-ness in other communities as well. So it’s not—we have to have these conversations not just amongst ourselves, but also with the white immigrants, but also with Black folks of like, what does it mean for us? And how are we being impacted? And how are you being impacted? And what does it mean for us to think about the fact that in the next 20 years, most of us will be the majority in this country in terms of numbers at least? What are the ways we can intentionally allow for us to not use this broader power of divide and conquer to actually hurt each other but actually think about— and not even to hurt white people—but to actually address whiteness and white supremacy and differentiating that addressing a systemic issue is not a personal attack on someone.
Janett I. Cordovés: As we go to wrap up, I’m just like, I don’t want to cut this conversation! We got so much more to go and so many questions. And we’ve complicated and we’ve nuanced, right? And we’ve leveled so many things that we can do as part of our world, where we are situated, next steps, thinking through them. And I want to make sure that one thing isn’t taken, that you are not so overwhelmed that you do nothing, right? So, we all have a sphere of influence, we all have agency within our communities and all of us here as panelists, IFYC is open and welcomes the continuation of this conversation so that, when you do something, it is intentional. It is with love. As Khalid had said, but I’ll use in my own religious frame, Satan is out there constantly working against us and I am called to love my neighbor. And I will continue to pursue that. And so, with that, Alexis?
Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim: Yes. One of the things that we wanted to talk about that we didn’t necessarily have time for today—and I say today because we might continue this conversation later. Is just how—we are pretty good in our culture at calling people out—but how do we call people into this work and really sort of celebrating the progress that we are making?
I just want to leave us with a little story from my tradition. As a pastor, as I mentioned of predominantly white space, it is hard to have these conversations over and over again and to sort of creating a sense of progress for all of us. But there is a family in my church, it’s a mixed-status family, a Latinx family. We encourage young people in our church to join us as we participate in actions and public demonstrations so, whenever I would go to I.C.E. or something like that to demonstrate, I would invite these youth to come with me. I noticed over the months and years of doing this, each time we went, they would always ask to do a little bit more. First, they just came and sort of stood there. Then, they came, and they had made a protest sign. Then, the next time they came and then they volunteered to speak to the Spanish language media and say what this work means from their own perspective. But it really stood out to me this past summer, on Juneteenth, when the youngest one, about 13, called and invited me to walk alongside them at a Black Lives Matter march that just was around the neighborhood. And I was caught off guard a little bit about that. You know, it’s not often that teenagers invite their pastor to participate in something like that. But he told me that it was important for him to go. That he had really been talking to other students at his school, especially Latinx and Black students. And that they had planned this march themselves and they were going to do this in front of their school. And he wanted me to come with him because, he said, you know, every time you go to I.C.E., you show up for our folks, now we want to show up for you and have this march together. That was really encouraging, generally speaking, but also because it came from a young person. I want to leave with us that. On a hopeful note.
As we’ve said all of this work is a balance of extending grace to one another while we challenge each other in moving forward. I would say, especially as people of faith, broadly defined, leading with a spirit of generosity and solidarity, hopefully, we can take that as encouragement as we go forward today. So, just thank you all for being here. We have gotten some positive, very positive feedback from the chat. You all have just been a blessing to all of us and have encouraged our thinking so much today. We really want to thank you for your time.